Mystical Messianism

Scholars debate the relationship between catastrophe, Jewish mysticism, and messianic fervor.

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Individual Mystics Bringing Redemption

In a thoroughgoing and informative dis­cussion, Idel attempts nothing less than a redefinition of the notions of mes­sianism, which Scholem popularized, to include the more individualistic, mystical quests for redemption. Idel will consider both types of Jewish mes­sianism [i.e. the nationalistic and the individualistic] regardless of "historic importance or significance" (p. 33). This affirmation places his book firmly within the history of ideas rather than history proper, although some of the messianic mystics later contribute to influential historical movements.

Idel also diverges from Scholem's position in his polemical perception that mysticism is not a static form of knowledge. Since mystics often perceive God and the world as ever‑changing, both God and the world are changeable. This knowledge can propel the desire of the mystic to effect changes within God and to act within the world. Instead of viewing mysticism and messianism as separate, almost mutually exclusive states of mind, Idel sees mysticism as the source of some, but not all, strands of messianism.

Idel advocates raising other forms of messianism to the same "level of authenticity" as apocalyptic writing, thus challenging and expanding the conventional definitions of Jewish messianism.

Messianic Movements and Catastrophe

One of the central theses of Scholem's Sabbatai Sevi that Idel seeks to confute is the link between messianism and catastrophe. Scholem posited and accepted the existence of a causal relationship between the two. Rejecting the Cossack uprisings of 1648-1649 as chronologically convenient but lacking sufficient basis, Scholem saw the Spanish expulsion of 1492 as the calamitous catalyst for [Isaac] Luria's kabbalah leading directly to the movement of Sabbatai Zevi of 1665.

Scholem, according to Idel, posited a development of messianism within kabbalah, in which pre‑1492 kabbalists were indifferent to messianism; those of the period 1492‑1570 created a synthesis of messianism and mysticism; and post‑1570 Jewish mystics neutralized the messianic element within kabbalah. Idel counters that any such linear and historical understanding of the place of messianism within Jewish mysticism is bound to obscure the multivalent expressions and interaction of these two spheres.

The lack of any significant development in Jewish messianism during the 14th century, a century marked by the Black Death and ruinous persecution of Jews in Christian lands, provides sufficient proof, Idel argues, that catastrophe does not necessarily precipitate outbursts of messianism.

Messianism Not Necessarily Cultivated by Mystics

Abraham Halevi was unique among the Spanish/Portuguese expellees in his acute preoccupation with messianism. Other exiles manifested a very conservative bent. They desired to rebuild and organize the kabbalah, not to create a new ferment in addition to the upheaval of exile itself. Indeed, Idel argues, the post‑expulsion manifestations of messianism were not necessarily cultivated by kabbalists.

Idel challenges the notion that the messianic ferment generally associated with Safed [where Isaac Luria lived] was a response to the Sephardic experience, arguing that it is actually the product of Italian eschatology, influenced in turn by local Christian apocalypticism. The proponents of acute messianism left a very small corpus of texts. Idel argues that by its very nature, acute messianism destabilizes, while the writing process conserves and consolidates, so there exists a negative correlation between the intensity of messianism and the production of texts.

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Dr. Elisheva Carlebach

Dr. Elisheva Carlebach is professor of history at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of Divided Souls: Converts from Judaism in Germany, 1500-1750 and The Pursuit of Heresy: Rabbi Moses Hagiz and the Sabbatian Controversies, winner of the National
Jewish Book Award.